A long post

Urban freeways (3)

The urban role of the automobile in Paris has clearly evolved during the last decades.

As the capital of a country with a powerful automotive industry and with relatively high automobile ownership rates for decades, the Parisian region has lived a complex relation with its freeways. The idea of an adaptation of the urban tissue and the street grid to the car appears as a relevant issue to the theoricians at the turn of the XXth century, as Augustin Rey or Eugene Henard (lower image), and is taken to its utmost development by Le Corbusier in its proposals for the city.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin was sponsored by a car maker, and called for the destruction of a large part of the parisian core opening large freeways on the right bank.

In 1943, still under German occupation, René Mestais, then general inspector and chief of the topographic and urbanism services, proposes the Boulevad Peripherique for the first time. Beyond mobility issues there is also the will to define a clear physical limit between a more planned Paris and a more haphazard banlieue (suburbs), seen as opposites not to be mistaken. The proposal uses the old fortification line as the most convenient right of way, a decision subsequently maintained. In 1995 the Bernard Lafay plan proposes two beltways, the present Boulevard Peripherique and a more inner city belt. The Boulevard Peripherique will finally be built as a 35 km freeway from 1960 to 1973, with 9 km over embankments, 13,5 on open trenches, 6,5 over viaducts and 6 on covered trenches.

The mandate of President Georges Pompidou (1969-1973) is marked by the presentation of several schemes to extend the freeway network over the inner city, but only the river Seine shore driveway (voies sur berges) are finally realized.

Some projects even propose to consider the Seine as the ultimate right of way…

In the 1980’s and 1990’s there are proposals for an underground  toll motorway system to crisscross the central city (LASER and other projects9, raising opposition for fears of cost and a high environmental impact.

In 2001 the City Council votes a proposal for works to cover our sections of the Boulevard Peripherique with green spaces and public facilities over slabs. In all four cases the sections were up to that date open trenches, with no proposal to change the existing road level (but sometimes changing the ramps layout), with a project oriente towards a concrete slab structure built over an open freeway. When the covered lengths are longer than 30 m the safety rules are the ones applied to long mountain tunnels.

–          Porte de Vanves: 260 m of new slabs, that add a total of 410 m counting the preexisting bridges.

–          Porte de Villiers to Porte de Champerret (2 separate sections in the 2001 decission), with over a km of length.

–          Porte des Lilas, with 660 m covered in two sections, to be later joined in a 1 km tunnel.

The projects are integrated in a comprehensive plan that takes into account the urban continuities with the same suburbs René Mestais wanted to separate in 1943, the present project having the clear goal to avoid the barrier effect.

The City Council is promoting now the transformation of the Seine riverbank driveway, one more element in a movement started in this decade with initiatives such as Paris Plage (an urban beach in summertime), that have led to temporary cuts on traffic. The project has sparkled a conflict with the Sarkozy administration, that demanded more specific traffic studies to justify the project. The proposal covers 2,5 km of river banks, and has been presented as a “spanish rambla” by the river, with mobile elements as small greenhouses or an athletics racecourse. On the right bank the project keeps two traffic lane with traffic calming measures and traffic lights, and a pedestrian itinerary 1,5 km long. On the left bank the project closes 2,3 km to cars, freeing the space from Musée d’Orsay to the Eiffel tower. In parallel a reinforcement of the public transportation system is projected.

Some references:

The Boulevard Peripherique Project: http://www.paris.fr/accueil/Portal.lut?page_id=8684&document_type_id=4&document_id=49287&portlet_id=20594

The Seine project: http://www.paris.fr/politiques/berges-de-la-seine/a-la-reconquete-des-berges-de-la-seine/rub_9766_actu_78193_port_24314

http://www.paris.fr/viewmultimediadocument?multimediadocument-id=82868

Urban freeways (2)

Mumbai (the city formerly named Bombay) is presented as the economic capital of India, with a metropolitan population over 19 millions. It is a city I don’t know in person, so these notes are based on secondary sources.

Historic Mumbai results from the union of several islands, creating a complex seashore. After a northward growth for the previous century the state of Maharastra begins the development of Navi Mumbai. A new town is so configured on 344 sq km on the continent, east of Thane Creek, as a part of an eastward movement reinforced by the opening of Vashi bridge and the new Jawaharlal Nerhu Port Trust. The aims of these projects are to absorb rural immigration that otherwise would congest insular Mumbai, to control growth and to balance business locations in a context of improved quality of live.

Growth previsions for Navi Mumbai have not been met, partly for a reason often critized in India: the shortcomings sincronizing urban growth with capital investment in infrastructure, as well for basic networks (water, sewage and sanitation, waste processing, energy) as for transportation. Maharastra State has a current investment program set to develop a transportation scheme including freeways, subways and monorail.

In this context Mumbai has plans, dating from the 1960s, to create a freeways network including a new 22 km bridge linking central Mumbai to Navi Mumbai and the port, as well as a coastal beltway on the western shore. This beltway is defined as a set of bridges aligned in parallel to the coastline, whose exit ramps are linked in perpendicular to the existing shore road.

The Bandra- Worli Sea Link (also known as Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link) is the first element in this western freeway. Composed of two parallel roads adding up eight traffic lanes, over a structure with concrete viaducts with a part cable stayed over Mahim bay, it configures a toll section of 5,6 km. It is today the southern extreme of the Western Express Highway, connecting Chhatrapati Shivaji airport to Worli, one of the main business districts in Mumbai.

The Indian web scene concerning the project shows an intense debate on the issues raised by the Bandra- Worli project, as well as on the whole sea link freeways project. On one side some inscribe the project on an economic development vision and as a solution to the urban car congestion. On the other side critics address the environmental impact, the radical change in the landscape implied by a permanent structure on the skyline, and the high construction costs. Some voices propose an alternative for shouthbound parts of the project, defining an configuration as a freeway on the shore, with a much reduced cost, without a definitive solution on sight.

The Bandra- Worli link was open to the public on june 30, 2009, presented a reduction in travel time between the two access points from close to 60 minutes in peak hours to 6 minutes. The configuration of the southern exist seems especially prone to congestion.

The freeway network project includes linking the Worli exit to the Navi Mumbai bridge through a future elevated freeway to Sewri, a 4 km section over one of the busiest parts of Mumbai.

Some references:

  1. Conference Urban Age Mumbai 2007 http://lsecities.net/ua/conferences/2007-mumbai/
  2. An article on city infrastructure on the Business Line section of The Hindu newspaper http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/article3258866.ece
  3. Vedula, Aparna, “Blueprint and reality: Navi Mumbai, the city of the 21st century” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197397506000154
  4.  Pradhan, Bawesh, et alt, “Evolution of Navi Mumbai” http://www.slideshare.net/debakshi/theory-of-settlement-navi-mumbai
  5.  A presentation criticizing the environmental management of the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link project http://es.scribd.com/doc/27569222/Bandra-Worli-Sea-Link-Environment-Mgmt

Urban freeways (1)

This post begins a series on urban freeways. The first case is that of Madrid Rio, the urban integration project of the M30 beltway  in Madrid. I live in Madrid and I have followed the works as citizen. Ezquiaga Arquitectura, Sociedad y Territorio, the practice to which I am associated, formulated a proposal selected for the second stage of the competition regarding the fluvial park (independent and later than the tunnels project), a competition finally won by Ginés Garrido/ West8.

Madrid was not founded on the banks of a large river, but on a minor Tagus tributary. The Manzanares has its source in the Sierra de Guadarrama, less than 50 km to the north, and it empties into the Jarama river south of the city. Upstream from Madrid the El Pardo Reservoir  allows for a complete regulation of the river flow, so the water level can ostensibly change between two visits, or even between two areas separated by locks. The transverse section shows an embankment of concrete walls along the M30.

Up to the strong urban growth in the civil war aftermath the Manzanres was a limit separating the city (which not always colonized its banks) and the open fields. Growth from that moment on the right bank has not prevented that limit condition to subsist, albeit in social terms, between the central city and the areas that were settled by rural populations with lesser resources (Carabanchel, Orcasitas, Aluche…). These territories were annexed to the Madrid Municipality soon. But for a small part in the north in which the Royal Palace plateau can be seen, and some areas in which the transformation of the old rail corridors started during the 1980s has been successful, most of the buildings around this itinerary show an unremarkable architecture.

The M30 beltway began its construction works in 1970, having been preceded by similar projects since the 1930s. Works ended in 1974, with protests by neighbors due to the reduced distance to their dwellings.

The nearly five kilometers (some three miles) separating subway station Legazpi (3) from station Principe Pío (21) can be walked in slightly more than 90 minutes (provided you are not in the hot summer season) through the Manzanares linear park. This park has been built after the burial of the M30 beltway in this area.

The project has kept the five ramp systems to the roads previously connected to the beltway, two of which are national trunk freeways. The burial of the freeway as an integration tool was applied also to the first part of the A5 expressway (Madrid- Lisbon) (22), so as to improve the pedestrian link between the public transportation hub of Principe Pio and the Casa de Campo (the large Madrid Park to the west).

The urban debate on the project was centered on the high cost of the buried solution, that will be in the municipal debt for years, the reduced public participation and the lack of environmental appraisal under the pretext of an urban condition of the freeway after its cession to the city. Burial works were planned and executed in 2003-2007, and the public spaces over the tunnels were executed in  2007-2011. The linear park has become an uncontestable success, to the point of sometimes having small conflicts of use between bikes and pedestrians.

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The urban promenade begins in the south at Plaza de Legazpi (3), on the left bank, long time the bus hub for links between downtown and the right bank. At that point the park resulting from the burial is also connected to the one to the south previously designed by Ricardo Bofill. The surroundings of Plaza de Legazpi still keep some testimonies of its past industrial strength, including the old slaughterhouse  (Matadero in Spanish) (2), today turned in an art and culture hub oriented towards contemporary and alternative scenes.

To the North, the Praga bridge (5) has maintained the A42 Toledo freeway on its former elevation level, with adjustments on the connection ramps, whose length and slope has increased due to the burial of the beltway.

To the North, the Toledo bridge (11), a masterpiece of baroque engineering, which before the burial was a pedrestrian structure, keeps that condition and is liberated from most of the additional bridges of the ramps connecting to the beltway, whose design has changed.

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The next stage is the Santiago Calderón soccer stadium (14), whose columns reach the Manzanares embankment. By lack of an agreement between the city and the owners to transfer the stadium to a different site, the stadium stays in its original configuration and is the only place in which the cars go back to the surface (only on the left bank) to go down again in the northbound itinerary. The complete burial should be executed, but has no timetable.

14

To the north, by the Segovia bridge (another relevant historic bridge)(19), a part of the previous freeway bridges is integrated in pedestrian areas. This marks the entry on the monumental part, where the park faces the Royal Palace and the Campo del Moro, its gardens. The burial has allowed for a substantial improvement of this urban space and its perception.

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Inner suburbs

Municipalities adjoining middle size cities are subject to peculiar dynamics: competition on a real estate price basis, and sometime on grounds of less strict codes than the central city are a constant, but in these municipalities position values are higher due to the highway infrastructure improvements related to central city accesses. Furthermore, the existence of virgin land that can channeled to proposals more adapted to market demand with comparatively lower management costs than in central cities is also a factor.

The following four municipalities (two in Spain, one in France and one in the United States) share that condition, being adjacent to central cities of midsize urban areas (each in its country) in different geographical contexts.

I know Oleiros as I have lived in La Coruña for 30 years; I have worked for ten years coordinating the team for the Santa Marta’s Plan General; and I know St Herblain from visits to Nantes, an interesting city. I have never been to Oregon, but Milwaukie seemed a good case in the American context.

Santa Marta de Tormes (population nearly 15.000) shares municipal boundaries with the capital of the province of Salamanca (metropolitan population near 190.000). Urban development during the XXth century has been linked to N-501 road to Madrid, on which is located the original settlement. Growth gained momentum during the 1970’s with large scale developments of detached housing south of the bypass expressway, in fact starting the development of peripheral municipalities. Growth has been fast, with a large share of detached housing surrounding a dense original core which shares most of the drawbacks of 1960-1980 Spanish urban areas: a dismal urban space (recently subject to requalification operations), scarce parks and public facilities, and a housing stock of lesser quality.

Santa Marta’s 2012 General Plan, defined by the Municipal Council, without a reference metropolitan planning framework, is articulated around the following guidelines:

–          Prevention of urban development in the environmentally significant areas (fluvial plains to the north, southern areas)

–          Concentration of residential growth in the central area of the municipality, north of the expressway, filling a present patchwork of disparate elements and giving coherence to future tissue. The proposed density is on average 35 housing units by hectare, combining individual and multifamily housing. It is difficult to predict a time for this development taking into account the present crisis context, but the priority is put on the future urban structure.

–          Provision of a set of boulevards irrigating the new residential areas, including a priority for walking an cycling, and a possible development as public transit corridors. The plan provides a system of large public facilities and parks in the growth areas. Peripheral bypass local roads are aimed at reducing car traffic in new residential areas.

–          New industrial and business areas south of the expressway.

–          Urban infill operations, mainly on industrial estates in central areas

Improvement in the road connections to central Salamanca through a new bridge over the river Tormes.

Urban core of Santa Marta de Tormes and improvements in the relation with the river Tormes : A) project for a new park related to the river, B) opening of visual connexion between Plaza Mayor and the embankment, C) integration of the new City Hall with the river and the island of El Soto.

Growth areas in Santa Marta de Tormes, integrating previously occupied tissues in the grid defined by the N-501 and the new boulevards (B1, B2).

Oleiros (population slightly over 34.000) is separated from the provintial capital of Coruña (metropolitan population 410.000) by the El Burgo estuary. As often in Galicia, there is no single main settlement, but an array of small ones distributed over the municipality. Urban growth during the XXth century was conditioned by improvements in N-VI road to Madrid, and even more by the AC173 road linking the city to the less exposed eastern beaches. An initial surge in holiday housing around beaches developed on a tradition of low density rural sprawl and a network of small paths and hamlets. Over time, these holiday houses became main permanent residences.

The 2009 Oleiros Plan Xeral, a municipal project without a metropolitan planning reference, protects from development the northern coastal strip and some ecologically significant internal spaces. The Plan aims to grow in continuity with the many areas already urbanized, often with a rural origin, and to improve a public facilities system that is already good from a regional perspective. There is also a will to integrate a coastal landscape quality element in the growth strategy; the recent approval of the Galician Coastal Plan, including Oleiros, helps in that sense and gives coherence to works on coastal areas on a metropolitan scale.

Central area of the Oleiros municipality. The City hall is on the right part of the image.

Oleiros, Santa Cristina beach.

St Herblain (population 44.000) shares municipal borders to the east with Nantes (population 590.000 for the whole metropolitan area), the old capital of the Britanny Dukes. In a context in which there was traditionally some settlement dispersion, the urban growth during the XXth century has been linked to the improvements of roads D965 (Nantes- Vannes) and D-17 (more local path on which sits the municipality main settlement). The municipality is also crossed by the Nantes Beltway (peripherique) and the Saint Nazaire Expressway (RD 201).

Today the RD 201 is occupied by business areas, configuring a territorial system in which three residential areas (Centre Bourg, Est and Nord) surround a central industrial and big box retail area. The housing stock shows a large proportion of single family units and some large multifamily social housing developments from the sixties, subject to improvement projects agreed upon by the municipality and the National Urban Renovation Agency.

St Herblain’s Plan Local d’Urbanisme, enacted in 2007, was developed by Nantes Metropole, the metropolitan governance structure, setting coherence with neighboring municipalities as a goal. The proposal follows four essential guidelines:

–          A diversified city: living in the city and in your neighborhood.

–          A moving city: developing and sharing the city

–          City and nature: preserving and improving the living space

–          An attractive city: participating in the metropolitan dynamics

–          The Plan defines a system of green corridors to ensure a continuite from the Chezine valley in the north to the Loire in the south, a requalification for the structural routes between the historical core and the north, specific measures in the south to tackle industrial risks and to promote renewable generation in the area (wind farms, high efficiency heath networks), and growth areas on the fringes of the current tissues as well as in a new northwest neighborhood.

Historical core of St Herblain. The historical layout can be recognized, with clear alterations in the void- built pattern due to the parking lots.

Recent residential tissue in northern St Herblain, with a majority of single family housing units and presence of multifamily units to the south.

Milwaukie (population 20.300) is a city in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area (population 1.556.000), established in 1847 on the Willamette river. The river was the main way to the city until the beginning of the XXth century. The opening of  McLoughlin Bvd in 1932 as the main thoroughfare connecting Portland and the upper Willamette valley, the main agricultural area of the state, and the railroad, allowed an effective integration into the metropolitan area.

Milwaukie is part of METRO, the metropolitan governance system of Portland, and also of its planning system, based on the Oregon land law, one of the closest in concept to the Spanish law in terms of growth control despite important differences.

The city center has a density that would be defines as reduced nearly anywhere in Europe, with little multifamily housing (of recent construction). Centrality depends on businesses, City Hall dependencies and a retail strip based on the automobile. The rest of the municipality can be describe as a vast array of single family housing with a reduced density from an European perspective (about 10 houses per hectare, which is about four per acre, in the densest areas).

The Metro 2040 Growth Concept is the Plan for metropolitan Portland, defining the guidelines for growth control. The Plan separates urban from urban growth land, and by exclusion there is also an implicit definition of the land not to be urbanized. The effective status of the land in terms of roads and infrastructures has led to Milwaukie being considered entirely urban. The central core is considered a Town Center (third scale centrality), integrating an existing high capacity transit line (rail) and a prevision for future transportation corridors. The Plan also defines two streets as Main Streets (retail concentration areas), and integrates the plans to convert the current rail line to southern Oregon in a high speed line.

The Town Center, as well as the Main Streets, are still projects. The designated  Main Streets are today low density roads in which the transformation has still to be started, with workshops currently being held as a public participation tool.

The historical core of Milwaukie ; on the left the Willamette river. On the image center is the City Hall, and along McLaughlin Bvd (the large street by the shore) the parking lots serving stores and offices are visible. Recent multifamily apartment buildings can be seen on the upper part of the image.

SE 32 Avenue in Milwaukie, one of the main streets proposed by the 2040 Strategy

Cities that share limits with central metropolitan cores show similarities :

–          A strong link with the social and economic dynamics of the whole metropolitan area. The competition with the center and the rest of the cities is played according to the position in the matrix defined by access, price and real qualities the city can offer.

–          The firs growth surges come usually while the city has not developed administrative control or structural planning visions, and this makes indiscriminate sprawl more likely. The Plan becomes a remediation instrument.

–           When cities consolidate their position in the metropolitan area, the Plan plays a more complex role, integrating the sustainable development issues not previously considered. It is not just social or environmental issues that have to be addressed, but also economic ones. The cost of maintaining in good state of repair roads and infrastructures is reduced during boom periods in which there are high fiscal revenues from permits; but they grow with time and often there is no sound and balance economic scheme to cope with that issue. Low density urban tissues can be especially onerous.

Metropolitan governance

The Royal Spanish Language Academy’s Dictionary defines governance as “art or way of rule that has as goal the attainment of a durable economic, social and institutional development, promoting a healthy balance between the state, the civil society and the economic market.”

Large metropolitan areas are a specific governance study case. They are often spaces in which the presence of a large central city implies a first division among its citizens and those of the rest of the area. Besides, that central city often has a demographic and economic size clearly larger than that of any of the surrounding municipalities, a basis for inter administrative relations based on a very asymmetric power balance.

Paris is the most complex example in terms of governance. France keeps a fine-grained local administration, with more than 36.000 municipalities (Spain has less than 9.000, despite having about the same surface), grouped in 101 departements (Spain is divided in 50 provinces).
Région Ile de France encompasses the metropolitan area and rural areas. It has a regional planning document (SDRIF) and a common practice of intermunicipal agreements to develop large urban planning projects.
The 105 sq km of Paris constitute a single municipality divided in 20 arrondissements.
Parisians vote 163 Paris Councilors, who later designate the Paris Mayor; citizens also vote for arrondissement’s councilors, who designate the 20 Arrondissement’s Mayors. The central city administration has most of the powers, urban planning included, while the arrondissement’s administration has a more local power, in issues such as ward’s public facilities, and are consulted by the central administration in matters concerning their constituency. In all, Parisians vote 517 elected officials, counting both levels and the 21 Mayors.
Paris is small in surface, and the last time a neighboring municipality was annexed was in 1860. The dense urban area extends beyond its limits, to encompass, nearly all the three adjoining departments, that add up 4,3 million people (nearly twice the size of Paris itself). The four departments combined means slightly more than half the metropolitan population of 12,1 millions.
Each department is divided in municipalities. The 21 Paris Mayors are joined consequently by 123 additional mayors that enjoy the prerogatives of their job, with some limits derived from regional planning. Besides, each department has its own administration, with its own powers and budget.
The complexity of this system and the initiative of President Sarkozy to revitalize greater Paris (with the precedent of initiative Banlieues 89 during Miterrand’s presidency) are partly the cause for the creation of the Metropolitan Conference, a voluntary group of municipalities from the metropolitan area (Paris included). The Conference has as one of its middle term aims to lead to a governance reorganization that would keep the present territorial division, assumed as a guarantee of democratic decision making.

New York City is in the homonymous state, neighboring the New Jersey state. The current municipality (1.214 sq km) was created in 1898 by the union of Manhattan, the first dutch settlement, and four other cities; back then Brooklyn was already one of the most populous cities in the US. The five Boroughs keep a clear personality today; no more independent cities, they keep a county status, which implies separate courts of justice.
The fact that New York is part of a metropolitan area spanning three states, with different legal provisions regarding planning and a lack of federal laws on the subject, explains at least partially the lack of an enforceable Regional Plan. Nevertheless, New York was the subject of one of the first regional planning experiences in the world; the 1929 Plan, developed by a private association (RPA) and endorsed by the big economic agents after the great depression, laid out the main current transportation and public space elements. Ulterior revisions of the plan had a less powerful influence, but are still a valuable reference to understand the metropolitan area.
The Pot Authority of New York and New Jersey is the most relevant public body in metropolitan terms, as it manages public transit networks as well as harbor services on both sides of the state line.
New Yorkers elect a Mayor of New York, with global powers over the whole city. They also elect five Borough Presidents, who review all public and private land use projects and can recommend approval or rejection of those projects; they also appoint most members of the Community Boards (59 in the whole city), non remunerated citizens without administrative powers but able to convey petitions and requests. Elected officials also include the City Council’s 51 members (one for each council district), the City Comptroller, the Public Advocate and five District Attorneys (one for each Borough).

The city of Madrid has a much simpler governance system. The last annexation of a neighboring municipality was in 1960, creating a municipality larger than 600 sq km with half the metropolitan population.
The Madrid Autonomous Region includes the city and 178 additional municipalities. The functional metropolitan area doesn’t coincide with the region’s limit, extending to neighbouring regions; some areas in the Madrid Region are clearly rural. Metropolitan plans existed during the Franco era, but despite the attempts during the 1990s and the provisions in the Madrid Land Laws, there is no regional plan. There are no metropolitan governance organisms, but specific agreements on technical services exist. The Consorcio de Transportes de Madrid, integrating the public and private transit companies, is the most relevant element in metropolitan mobility.
Madrid citizens vote in a single municipality-wide constituency, with closed political parties lists, to choose 57 city councilors proportionally to the votes obtained by each party; councilors designate a Mayor (currently a woman). The day to day administration is assumed by a governing board of eight members appointed by the Mayor.
The municipality is divided in 21 districts. The Mayor designates a President Councilor for each district, with no obligation to take into account the electoral results in that district; the elections winner takes all the municipal power. On a daily basis, the role of the opposition councilors is limited to a government control function.


The Parisian system is subject to criticism for its extreme administrative complexity and how difficult it is to get a consensus on large scale operations; but it is also praised for the wide chances it gives to local opinions to be taken into account, although it doesn’t prevent situations as the 2005 riots.
New York’s system is conditioned by the problems to articulate solutions encompassing the whole tri-state area and the wide gap in living quality among different parts of the city; nevertheless It allows for an agile action.
The Madrid system is often criticized by its monolithic aspect and its lack of representation opportunities for small areas, lacking the checks and balances inherent to a more desegregate system; having a similar area, the four central departments of metropolitan Paris boast 144 mayors, as opposed to a single one in Madrid. Despite that, decision taking is often agile.

Large Metropolitan Areas

Large metropolitan areas are the most complex stage of the urban phenomenon. When these cities are also the political and/or economic capitals of their countries, their functions become even more complex.

The overlay of highway infrastructures is the most present layer of the future configuration of public spaces and the visibility of the urban landscape, regardless of its qualities. Public transportation using often tunnels, the urban freeways create the true face of the metropolis.

The urban insertion of these road systems can be done with different degrees of success. Cutting traffic on the riverside embankments of Paris seems a simple solution; reclaiming the Manzanares embankment in Madrid by burying the M30 traffic means a huge cost, but brings back a quality public space that has become a clear public success. The Mumbai sea link proposed roads seem similar in concept to what was the M30 beltway in Madrid five decades ago: relocating an infrastructure problem in a public domain, solving the mobility flux with a strong impact on the environment and the landscape.

The urban quality of these spaces comes also from their ability to integrate open spaces and landscape features : rivers, large parks, sea shores, beaches… the presence of several uses on the elements that by themselves are transit ways is one of the main issues.

The hierarchic structure of the city is also relevant in metropolitan areas. The territory is never isotropic, and even if the urban theory is always devising polycentric structures that can often work, the most usual is to see a strong central core. The experience of many American cities, where this core has been depleted over time by the translation of functions to the suburbs, shows that urban quality can suffer when the center cannot hold. The historical cores that where almost the whole city a century ago are today just a small part of the population and a shrinking proportion of economic activity, but they still have a strong symbolic role.

The dynamics of the urban core, even if it keeps a relevant strength, can have a negative impact on population. The role of the core as a symbol can increase the presence of large public facilities or corporate headquarters, usually reducing the local scale public facilities and services for the area inhabitants, that can feel they have better chances in the suburbs.

A first post

I live in a city, I work on many, and I am interested in the city as a thought subject, in itself or in its links with the land in which it sits. I live in Spain, a country under a heavy crisis somehow linked to having lost the perspective about the nature and the role of cities; for a decade the city has been seen not as a tool for a better life, but as the chessboard for an economic game, confusing means and objectives.
Among the results of this crisis there is a growing awareness of urban issues. Some look for those guilty of the crisis, something I’m interested on as a citizen, but that is not the purpose of these lines. Some want a paradigm shift through a stronger citizen involvement, educating people as to obtain their engagement. Otherwise, it would be naïve to think that the city will no longer concentrate huge economic interests, often legitimate, whose effective social articulation also requires a reflection in a moment in which a growing (and often preposterous) complexity of the planning system makes it loose its legitimacy as a tool to improve our vital environment.
All the approaches enrich the debate. This blog shows a perspective on cities and land, taking into account long term dynamics: relations with the wide land context, urban pattern inertia, and the chances to improve the efficiency of the city as an everyday tool to improve our lives.

The blog will be composed of comparative case studies regarding different social and geographic contexts. The comparative analysis is sometimes based on my own personal travel experience, and in the rest of the cases on available geographic data. There is a risk to be unable to grasp the meanings in some contexts; but there is also a chance to find interesting elements in unexpected places.

As an example, this first post includes a series of images of eight midsize metropolitan areas: my hometown (La Coruña), two more European cities, two Americans, an African and two Asians. I only have been to three of these cities, and the depth of information available is not homogeneous.

A progressive scale approach allows a better understanding of some problems. The use of universally available cartographic resources does not hinder the explanation, but in some cases more elaborate maps will be used.

I am an urban planner because I am an architect, even if there is no compulsory causality. In every case I will play with scales as I find fit, from 5 cm to 1.000 km. Each question requires a scale or a combination of several, and social, economic and environmental issues coexist with an aesthetic and constructive dimension of the city.

This blog is not a collective work; I am to blame for form or content errors. I will be grateful to my readers for their observations leading to error correction.